COVID-19 Updates: Taking steps to return to normal.
Check against delivery.
Thank you, Chris and good afternoon, everyone.
I’d like to begin today by outlining how we will be sharing COVID-19 updates over the holidays.
I know the detailed numbers we post online every day are followed by many Albertans, and even more people are interested in them now with the Omicron variant circulating in the province.
I also know that our surveillance teams have worked tirelessly since the pandemic began.
That’s why, for the next week and a half, we will be modifying our reporting to give our teams a break while still keeping Albertans informed over the holidays.
Next week, I will hold two live public updates on December 28 and 30.
I will provide an overall update to Albertans on the Omicron situation at those times, as well as general numbers for cases and tests completed.
We will post our usual detailed data online on the 29 of December, including a daily breakdown of case numbers from December 24 to December 28.
We will provide another detailed daily breakdown of cases following the holiday break on January 4 and every weekday thereafter.
This schedule could change, and is dependent on the situation we’re facing next week, but it is our balance between giving teams well-deserved time off and keeping Albertans informed.
I want you to know that this only impacts our public reporting. Our dedicated frontline workers and health-care teams will keep working every day to look after Albertans, as they have done throughout the pandemic.
Turning to today’s numbers, over the last 24 hours, we identified 1,625 new cases of COVID-19, and completed about 11,800 tests.
Our positivity rate is 13.6%.
There have been no new deaths related to COVID-19 reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours.
We have seen a significant uptake for third doses since we opened them up to any Albertan 18 years or older who received their second dose at least five months ago.
As of yesterday evening, 196,391 booster doses have been booked since we expanded to age 18 and older.
In fact, I’m looking forward to getting my own booster dose of Moderna first thing tomorrow.
I want to thank every Albertan who has booked their appointment or received their booster – you’re helping to protect yourself and others from the virus.
If you haven’t booked your appointment yet, please do so today.
There are currently 318 people being treated for COVID-19 in hospital, including 64 in the ICU.
While these numbers have dropped in the recent week, it’s important to remember these are still very high baselines and that it’s too soon to know what the severity impact from our Omicron cases will be.
I want to take a few moments to talk about the spread of Omicron in our province. I also want to remind Albertans of the restrictions in place and what additional precautions should be taken to minimize the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19.
The transmission trend for Omicron in Alberta continues to be consistent with what other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world are experiencing, with doubling times of just two to three days.
This is much faster than we experienced with the Delta variant over the last six months.
To mitigate this unprecedented rate of infection, we must adjust our case investigation and notification process as well as making changes to our lab policies.
Similar to other provinces, with the growth of COVID-19 cases, we are now focused on investigating cases in high-priority settings such as continuing care as well as those who work in health care.
Cases not in high-priority settings such as those mentioned, will still be notified of their test result and they will receive a call to ensure they are aware of their isolation requirements, but we will not longer have the capacity to do full case investigations for these other cases.
This is aligned with other provinces and is necessary to ensure our teams are focusing their efforts on the settings of highest priority. As a result of this change, some information will no longer be available, such as where certain cases were acquired and whether new cases are known to have had close contact with other COVID cases.
With cases growing exponentially, we must also begin to conserve testing capacity, reserving PCR testing for higher risk groups.
This is why we are changing our recommendations today for use of rapid tests. From this point forward, we recommend that rapid tests be preferentially used for those who have symptoms for most people.
If you are symptomatic and have access to a rapid testing kit, we encourage you to use that test instead of going for a PCR test.
If you test positive and have symptoms, consider that as confirmation that you have COVID-19. Please isolate and notify your close contacts.
If you test negative and have symptoms, you should stay in isolation and repeat another rapid test 24 to 48 hours later. If you are negative a second time, you need to stay in isolation until symptoms resolve and no further measures are required once you’re feeling better.
This recommendation will help ease the burden on our lab and mirrors a similar approach seen in BC, Ontario, Quebec, and other Canadian jurisdictions.
The exceptions to this recommendation are if a person lives or works in a high-priority setting, such as continuing care or health care, or an individual who qualifies for COVID antibody treatment because of their clinical condition. These individuals should still get a PCR test whether or not they’ve tested positive on a rapid antigen test.
For details on what high-priority settings are included, and for the criteria on who is eligible for antibody treatment, please visit alberta.ca/covid.
The website also has details on what to do if you have tested positive on a rapid test as part of an asymptomatic screening program.
I ask that if anyone has a PCR test booked right now to follow up on a positive rapid test, please cancel it to free up space for others, unless you meet the high-risk criteria.
I also want to be clear that asymptomatic testing for close contacts is not part of our eligibility for PCR testing.
PCR tests at this point need to be used for those who have symptoms and especially those who do not have access to rapid tests.
Another change we are making today is to provide additional layers of protection to one of our highest risk settings. Today we are updating the screening process for staff in long-term care, designated supportive living, and hospice care.
Fully immunized staff in these facilities who are known close contacts of a case of COVID-19 will be required to take a daily rapid test for 10 days following their exposure and if they test positive on a rapid test they are not able to work.
This is one group who would then go on to have confirmatory PCR testing, but until this is complete, they would not be able to enter their workplace unless 10 days have passed from the positive test result.
In addition, fully immunized residents in licensed supportive living facilities who are identified as a close contact of a COVID case or who return to their facility after an absence of 24 hours or greater must actively screen for symptoms of COVID-19 every day and must wear a medical mask for 14 days post-exposure or post-return whenever they are outside their own room.
Finally, we are increasing the PPE recommendations for anyone caring for a suspect or confirmed case of COVID-19 in a continuing care facility to include an N95 mask or equivalent as part of the overall PPE.
We are taking these precautions given how fast Omicron is spreading, and given that there are still many things we don’t know about the variant.
I want to stress that anyone living in, working in or visiting a licensed supportive living facility must not enter if they have symptoms, no matter what their immunization status is.
I also want to clarify my recommendations for community masking that I spoke about on Tuesday. Universal N95 mask use in public settings is not my recommendation.
A well-fitting medical mask provides significant benefit, and the evidence is not conclusive that N95 masks provide sufficient additional benefit in public settings to make up for some of the drawbacks of these masks.
Individuals can choose to use N95 masks or equivalent, but it is important to remember that a mask alone will not prevent exposure.
Outside of the highest risk settings in health care and continuing care, where PPE includes not just mask use but eye protection and other components, my recommendations for masking in public are that masks are well-fitted and of high quality, and that use of masks is combined with other layers of protection such as reducing crowding, improving ventilation, and preventing symptomatic people from being present in a space.
With Christmas Eve tomorrow and Kwanzaa beginning on Sunday, I want to repeat my encouragement to all Albertans to cut their in-person social contacts by at least half over the holidays.
As I said on Tuesday, our family cancelled our in-person gathering even though it would have been compliant with current rules. I believe the situation is that serious.
I ask that if you plan to gather with others from outside your household over the holidays, please respect the gathering limits in place and take additional precautions.
While you can gather in groups of up to 10 adults, it’s prudent to keep gatherings as small as possible and limit the number of get-togethers you host and attend.
Critically, stay home if you feel even a little bit unwell. If you’re under the weather and are supposed to host others, please cancel the gathering.
We know that these small actions can make a significant difference when all of us work together.
I know that this isn’t the holiday season that any of us were hoping for. Despite the challenges that this new variant presents, I hope all of us, no matter what holiday we celebrate, can remember everything we have to be grateful for, and still find joy in this holiday season.
Thank you and I’m happy to take questions.